Sourcing the Crowd for a Sustainable Energy Future
“It’s true that no environmental action is possible in Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s also true that no congresses or parliaments are the only halls of power”.
⁃ Bill McKibben, “Cashing out Climate Casino”, The New York Times, Friday 15th December 2017
It’s not uncommon to rub shoulders with founders, investors, and their industry friends at a startup event in the Silicon Valley; it is after all what people expect to be doing when they are here. What’s different about this “Solar for All Party” and panel discussion I attended recently, hosted by the non-profit solar crowdfunding startup RE-Volv in Downtown San Francisco, was the diversity in the crowd. I noticed investors mingling with on-the-ground volunteers who were working the solar installations, foundation representatives were connecting to a church pastor, and in the back of the room, there I was was taking notes, so to speak, from two Sierra Club staffs.
It’s a strange scene at first but that is the new reality of the climate and clean energy movement today. It is no longer exclusively a top-down, policy-driven movement - what with President Trump’s official withdrawal from the Paris Accord - but one that demands participation from different stakeholders across the political and social spectrum. While environmental journalist Bill McKibben was talking about Norway’s sovereign fund divesting from fossil fuels as a tipping point in the financial sector, the room that I found myself in represents the other end of the sea of change - one that is originating from individuals from the ground up. Today, clean energy is crowd-sourced and crowd-funded.
Coupling Financing and the Power of Communities
True to the name of the event, the non-profit RE-Volv is using its crowd-funding platform to raise money from individual donors for small-scale solar projects for local, community organizations who are normally left out of traditional financial incentives. Namely, non-profits are exempt from federal taxes, therefore, they cannot leverage the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) while for-profits can. Once installed, the organization would pay installments in a lease-to-own model which is lower than their electricity bill. Any profits made by RE-Volv from these projects are aggregated in a Solar Seed Fund which supports future solar projects.
The Solar Seed Fund model engages individual donors to become ongoing supporters.
So far, they have successfully completed 11 projects across 4 states, raising $300,000 in the past 4 years and each year growing with support - most recently, in the form of a grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. The beauty of this financing model is that it can become fully self-sustaining - in theory - when 100 projects are successfully implemented. That is, the income from the lease payments will cover all operating costs for RE-Volv and installation costs for 1 new solar project every 3 weeks ad infinitum.
Communities that Keep on Giving
What lies at the heart of RE-Volv’s successes? The Solar Seed Fund is a unique twist on the leasing/PPA model for the non-profit sector, and founder Andreas Karelas is a charismatic and genuinely optimistic individual who can, I imagine, charm even the most doubtful critics into ardent supporters. These alone would make a good case for its current and future successes. In addition to that, the RE-Volv team understood one key insight from the very beginning: there is power in communities.
"We don’t have time to wait for our politicians to solve the climate crisis. We don’t have time to wait for corporations to solve the climate crisis or to change their business models. We have to do it ourselves”
- Andreas Karelas
RE-Volv helps small, non-profit organizations that serve as community hubs - a church or a learning center for instance - which provide services in need to the local community that they are a part of. In this niche, RE-Volv is fully leveraging the social capital within the community by giving people the agency to take sustainable action in small and tangible ways like volunteering their time, publicizing the project, or making donations for a cause they care about. This brings the broad climate movement that is happening around the world closer to home.
Solar installations become a community event that brings people together. Source: RE-Volv
The Business of Making Climate Change Personal
Their latest project, a 5.8 kW system for First Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, successfully raised $18,949 in less than one day (with twitter support from Leonardo DiCaprio on #givingtuesday no less). Located in a low-income neighborhood, the Church is known for its Food Giving Program which feeds over 300 families each month. And with this solar project to help them save on energy bills, they can contribute even more to this and other services for the community. At the end of the day, this solar campaign helped illustrate a very tangible link between saving energy (an environmentally-conscious decision) and benefits for people in the community. Benefits which, in the long-run, could translate to stronger financial and emotional investment in both clean energy and the community.
“What this project has done already to the self-esteem of many of the members at Faith Baptist Church, it is tremendous. So is the change in community, change in life. As far as I’m concerned, this is just the start.”
- Pastor Curtis Robinson
Naturally, the next question to ask is: are there other communities to tap into to scale this idea? After all, there are many faith-based communities and other local interest groups around the nation and the world. Early data seems promising: 1000 individual donations from past projects came from 38 states and 22 countries.
There is an opportunity for solar energy to be more than just free electrons from the sun. With the power of communities as a backdrop, I see a future where everyone realizes a better standard of living through services and resources that solar energy enables. I hope one day that people will recognize that there is no energy ‘debate’ between you and me, green and fossil, Democrats and Republicans. A rising tide of solar energy may be just what we need to raise all boats, with or without the rhetoric of climate change.
“RE-volv Solar for All Party w/ Clean Energy Access Panel Discussion” was held at Farallon Capital Management in San Francisco on December 7th, 2017 and was attended by the author. More details of the event can be found on the Eventbrite page.
RE-Volv and Paricha Duangtaweesub